Advocate or Honest Broker?

By Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

To mark the first anniversary of the Integration and Implementation Insights blog, we launch an occasional series of “synthesis blog posts” drawing insights across blog posts on related topics.

What is our social obligation as researchers to see our findings implemented? And how should we do it? When is it appropriate to advocate loudly to drive change? When should we focus on informing decision makers, stepping back ourselves from direct action? How can we know that our research is ‘good enough’ to act on and not compromised by our own values, interests, cognitive biases and blind spots?

Reseachers’ Obligation to Implement Findings

So what about researchers’ obligations? It’s now almost a given that researchers should not just improve understanding about a problem, but should take action to ensure that their findings are implemented in policy and practice change. In the United Kingdom and Australia, research impact is increasingly becoming a performance measure for both researchers and universities. goberIn the United States, Pat Gober reports in her blog post on results from a recent survey by the Pew Foundation that 76% of the public and 97% of scientists said it was appropriate for scientists to “become actively involved in political debates”. She goes on to say: “The issue is what form that engagement takes – whether scientists become advocates for particular positions or serve as neutral advisors and conveners of interested parties in … deliberations.”

Indeed, Pat Gober highlights that not being actively engaged in societal issues and the political context for decision making can limit the usefulness of the science being undertaken. Citing the case of hydrology, she argues that by being divorced from the social and political context, hydrology has not
•    “adequately captured the human dimensions (economy, society, culture, and policy) in water modeling
•    sufficiently integrated relevant stakeholders into the modeling process
•    significantly impacted political debates about water.”

The Case for Honest Brokers

In considering water sustainability, Pat Gober favours “the role of neutral convener to bring relevant stakeholders to the process of integrated water modeling, support active exploration of alternative policies and scenarios of the future, and promote evidence-based decisions that will outlive the next political cycle.”

In his blog post, John Callewaert illustrates how his centre has achieved this in the controversial area of fracking, callewaertby focusing on “carefully developing our plans, working with a diverse advisory committee, seeking broad public input, being fully transparent about funding, and employing conflict of interest and peer review protocols.” Nevertheless, he highlights how critics will seize on any perception of conflicts of interest to attack the work. To counter this, his centre used a “constant informal test” that “if all of our partners (state, industry, and environmental organizations) were somewhat critical of our work then we were probably operating in a good space.”

As Pat Gober points out, the costs associated with advocacy can be even higher, which for her is a compelling argument favouring the honest broker position. In particular, she argues “scientists risk losing public trust in the validity of the science and the power of modeling and visualization to represent the critical trade-offs that are embedded in virtually all public decisions about water today.” This issue is relevant not just to water, but also to research on other politically contentious issues.

The Case for Advocacy

But are there some issues where the science is so compelling and the social costs so high that researchers should take an activist stance? A case close to home raised these issues for John Callewaert, namely lead pollution in household water supplies in Flint, Michigan. This challenge was also confronted by the scientists discovering human-induced climate change and working through its likely effects. A third example is the well-proven increases in illness and death caused by smoking tobacco. In all of these cases scientists have become advocates and activists. Each case has illustrated how this can lead to attacks on the personal integrity of the scientists and their institutions, along with questioning of the science involved. But in each case the achievement of social good is also evident.

When is the Research ‘Good Enough’ to Act On?

Given the costs associated with being an advocate, and even an honest broker, how can researchers be confident that their findings will withstand scrutiny and attack? A particular challenge for all research is that it is influenced by the researchers’ own values and interests, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. Without passion, many researchers would not persist through unproductive patches, or even undertake the work in the first place. Problems arise when cognitive baises and blind spots lead to incorrect or incomplete interpretation of results, or when motivations lead to falsification of results or premature implementation. As described above, John Callewaert’s blog post points to checks that can be set in place to reduce these risks. The challenge is to encourage the implementation of safeguards, without introducing stifling bureaucracy.

Contributions welcome

What do you think? What has your experience been? Can you see a way forward?

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.

2 thoughts on “Advocate or Honest Broker?”

  1. A broker needs engagement from those around them. For this to happen they need to be not only honest but also valued in the eyes of those they will broker with and between. The key question is not what scientific or research skills do I have to offer, but how can I make them attractive and valuable in the eyes of the people I need to engage with? Doing these two things will magnetise your broker role and attract people and partners towards you, making you an influential part of the collaborative system.


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